Today I’m taking a little break from interiors chat, as it is the first day of the global climate strike. I want to share a bit about climate basics. Most of you probably know that climate change is a serious existential threat. Many of you probably know how climate change works. But a recent conversation with a good friend left me a little concerned. She - a highly astute, erudite and generally ‘woke’ woman - admitted she knew very little about climate change. It’s worrying because the scale and timeframe of the problem we are facing requires that all of us deeply get climate change or at very least get important things we can all be doing to take climate action. That conversation left me thinking that it’s worth writing up a few basic points around climate change - an abridged version - that I could share with her and you. And what better time than at the end of another HOT summer - even here in the UK - a time when record temperatures are being set what seems like daily. What better time than the first day of the global climate strikes? This month (September 2019) climate change comes acutely into focus as the UN Secretary General is hosting a dedicated Climate Action Summit in NYC, as Greta continues to make headlines, having completed a zero-low carbon trip across the Atlantic, and as fires in South America are still burning.
So this high-level guide on climate basics is for you, if you’ve been wondering what this Extinction Rebellion business is or what Greta Thunberg is on about. Don’t worry - it’s not just doom and gloom though. There are links at the bottom of this article share important ways you can contribute to solving the climate crisis that we‘re facing. Please share this with friends and colleagues if you think it’s useful. We really do need everyone on board, and we needed them yesterday!
Climate vs weather: ‘Weather’ describes short-term variation in the atmosphere, ‘climate’ refers to a location’s weather averaged over a period of time (NOAA). Weather is thought of in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, visibility, wind, and atmospheric pressure, as in high and low pressure (NASA). ‘Climate change’, then, refers to changes in long-term averages of daily weather.
While weather events like heatwaves happen due to changes in atmospheric pressure (changes in weather conditions), they are made more likely and more intense by human-induced climate change.
How does climate change happen?
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)* has found in its Fifth Assessment Report that climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.
As sun rays reach earth, particles in the atmosphere (greenhouse gases, GHG) trap some of those rays. The burning of fossil fuels, among other things, causes more GHG to enter the atmosphere, effectively trapping heat.
When an excess of GHG emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, the global mean temperature goes up, causing disruptions in natural systems it disrupts long-standing climate patterns, with implications for communities, governments and the private sector, including nearly all sectors of the economy.
How bad is it? Eighteen of the 19 warmest years all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998. The year 2016 ranks as the warmest on record. (NASA/GISS). This research is broadly consistent with similar constructions prepared by the Climatic Research Unit and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA).
What parts of the climate have already changed?
From 1880 to 2015, the average global temperature increased by about 1°C.
Oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and the sea level has risen. From 1901 to 2010, the global average sea level rose by 19cm as oceans expanded due to warming and ice melted. The sea ice extent in the Arctic has shrunk in every successive decade since 1979, with 1.07 × 106 km² of ice loss per decade.
What will happen in the future? Given current concentrations and ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases, it is likely that by the end of this century (2100) global mean temperature will continue to rise above the pre-industrial level.
Projections suggest that the world’s oceans will warm and ice melt will continue. Average sea level rise is predicted to be 24–30 cm by 2065 and 40–63 cm by 2100 relative to the reference period of 1986–2005.
Climate change will likely persist for many centuries, even if emissions are stopped today, as warming is already ‘baked into’ the system. For example, the oceans have been absorbing heat for decades and we are only just seeing what that will mean. What happens after 2040-2060, however, will very much depend on what we do right now to stop further emissions.
What impacts are we seeing and can we expect to see?
This overall warming causes climate related hazards that will impact businesses, governments and individuals. It will mean business interruption from increased and more intense extreme events like floods and hurricanes. It will mean machinery and transportation equipment may not work as efficiently due to increasing air and water temperatures. It will mean supply chain disruption. We will see changes of available food products and inputs for manufacturing. Our individual lives will also be impacted in myriad ways, from having to deal with hotter and more frequent heatwaves to navigating more intense and frequent flooding and storms. Insurance prices will go up. Prices for products and services will change. All of these things are even happening now and we should expect to see more of it.
How long do we have to act?
In 2018, it was claimed that we have 12 years to act, by those citing a new IPCC report. This is a slight misinterpretation of the science. We do have a short time to act before some of the change will be irreversible - even if we decrease greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (C02) later on in the century (Union of Concerned Scientists). We don’t have long, but we have more than 12 years. That does not mean that we should not do everything we can right now to stop further emissions of GHGs.
Right, so what can you do about it? Action on climate change can involve mitigation or adaptation.
Mitigating climate change refers to reducing further climate change – and involves reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (E.g. Carbon Dioxide or Methane) into the atmosphere (NASA). There are countless sites and pages with reams and reams of guidance on how to reduce your own carbon footprint, or the amount of carbon emissions your actions are responsible for. I particularly like this list of 35 ways from Columbia University which breaks down actions into broad categories such as: food, clothing, shopping, home, and transportation.
The biggest contribution you can make will likely involve how you heat your home, how you travel, and the food you eat. That said, as the saying goes you can’t change something you don’t measure- so use free online tools to calculate your carbon footprint first and then target where you think can be reduced.
Adaptating to climate change refers to adapting to life in a changing climate, and it involves adjusting to current or expected future climate impacts like increased flooding or temperatures. The goal is to reduce our vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change (like sea-level encroachment, more intense extreme weather events or food insecurity) (NASA). This is the area of climate that I work in, and our company, Acclimatise, specialises solely in helping businesses, financial institutions and governments understand what the climate science suggests will be impacts for their operations and policies.
Adaptation for individual members of society can range widely- from shoring up your home in the event of an extreme event like a flash flood, to making a strategy to deal with this. For those of us in western, developed countries, the impacts of climate change may feel far distant. Those in developing countries may be more on the front line. Adaptation is important for all of us though- as I said earlier, even if we stop all emissions tomorrow, the excess emissions in the system is going to ensure we continue to experience climate impacts well into the future. One of the best ways we can adapt in places where the physical impacts feel like they’re so distant, is to take on mitigation related activities. So mitigation becomes adaptation for us because we effectively adjust our lifestyles to take account of the wider change we see across the world - and to prevent more of it from happening. For me, the biggest adaptation measures you can take easily are checking your insurance policies to see what they cover in the event of flooding or storm damage, for example, and asking your pension provider what they are doing to address climate change considerations in their investments. (Are they still investing in coal fired power plants and other carbon intense activities? Are they analysing what the climate models say impacts might be for companies in their portfolios?)
Ok so that got a little long winded, but really this is just the tip of the iceberg. Please please please let me know if you have any further questions at all about this. I will do a follow up piece about the links between climate issues and other more general environmental concerns about plastics, etc.
*NB: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment to provide an objective source of scientific information.